On May 14, Gordon Howie, a Republican candidate for Governor in South Dakota, called on churches to rise in an act of defiant insurgency: buck federal law and openly endorse a candidate. Preferably him.
His invitation, evocatively named the “Pulpit Challenge,” was answered affirmatively by at least one pastor. The Rapid City Journal reports that on Sunday, May 15, at Liberty Baptist Tabernacle, the parish minister, Rev. H. Wayne Williams, stated his unequivocal support for Howie. And he encouraged his congregants to get out and vote accordingly.
Obviously, the challenge is a bit controversial. In addition to tossing out church-state separation, the endorsement rejects the Johnson amendment that forbids tax-exempt institutions from dipping into politics. Following the lead of the Alliance Defense Fund, which launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008, its pastoral supporters are sticking to their decision. They frame it as a necessary stand against an unjust law that hurts churches. The amendment, Scott Craig, a pastor and Howie supporter, told the Journal, “is unconstitutional, impossible to enforce, cannot stand up in a court of law and has never been enforced on any church since its passage.” Craig also endorsed McCain from his pulpit in 2008 without any IRS scrutiny, he claims.
Howie certainly sees it that way. A state Senator from Rapid City, Howie is running proudly as “The Tea Party Republican.” It’s blazoned all over his campaign website. And his positions follow the now familiar anti-establishment tropes of the Tea Party. His platform centers on his promise to be a one-man state border patrol—keeping government out, and God in.
For Howie, the ability for pastors to voice political opinions is a basic Constitutional right. He recorded a video urging good Christians to join him in his “battle for our freedom.”
And he is taking his Pulpit Challenge on the road for a rally tour before the June 8th primaries.
Although Howie’s views may be sincere, his maneuver is likely a tactic to distinguish himself in the race. His candidacy is, according to the Argus Leader, the best test of the Tea Party movement in the state. And Howie does appear to be a true believer: he was the only Republican Senator to vote against the state budget, demanding a statewide spending freeze. (Unlike Rand Paul, Howie won’t have to brace for how his ideas are received nationally.) His campaign is a potent example of the synthesis between the Tea Party movement and conservative Christianity.
But he is also a long shot for the Governor’s seat. While his other Republican challengers top or match the Democratic frontrunner, Howie loses by 15% in the most recent polls.
It’s unclear if his pulpit gambit will pay off. His own pastor, while supportive, isn’t going to take the challenge. “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t put my church in jeopardy of anything.” Perhaps Howie needs less pulpit, and more prayer.